Denise Hylands Introduces Listeners To The Dark Side of Country on 3RRR’s Twang

Denise Hylands with musician Joshua Hedley.

Every Saturday afternoon, driving home from teaching a Pilates class, I’d hit the freeway right as the theme song for Twang introduced Denise Hylands’ regular 2-hour country music show on 3RRR. I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of country music, but there’s something contagious about Hylands’ pure passion and knowledge. I never change the dial, never even consider it. Whether it’s a rarity from the ‘50s, or a recent release by an Australian country music artist, Hylands treats every song and artist with so much respect. She’s been in the game long enough that if she didn’t love it, there’d be no point doing this.

“I’m usually the one doing the interviews!” Hylands tells Audiofemme. “I always just want to make people feel comfortable – in fact I just think of it like a chat, a conversation. I love talking to people, getting their story, finding out where they come from so that listeners get the full story.”

Hylands applied to 3RRR as an administrative assistant shortly after completing high school in 1983; landing the job eventually led to doing graveyard shifts and filling in for absent presenters. She presented her first regular 3RRR show in 1984, the Selection Show on Sunday afternoons, showcasing new releases. She was also part of the Breakfasters lineup, a show which still kickstarts many Melbournian’s mornings.

“I was already at 3RRR from 1984 when I was 18, and I did shows for 12 years then approached the program manager and proposed an idea for a country show,” explains Hylands. “There was already High In The Saddle, but I wanted to show off more alternative country, less mainstream. So, I started Twang on Monday nights in 1996 from 10 to 12pm. I did it for a year and by the year end, I was given Saturday afternoons, which I’ve done for the past 24 years. I loved that first year,” says Hylands, then adds with a juicy laugh: “The amount of people who complained!”

Recent episodes of Twang have offered interviews with Calexico, Tracy McNeil, Marlon Williams, Charley Crockett, Slim Dusty’s grandson and a tribute to the late, great, troubled troubadour, Justin Townes Earle and the legendary John Prine.

Hylands raves about McNeil and Dan Parsons, both of whom are performing in Melbourne in May. “Tracy turned up nearly ten years ago from Canada,” Hylands recalls. “She was hanging out with Jordie Lane. He’d recorded an EP in his bedroom and I really liked it, then Tracy had given me a CD when I was hanging out with Jordie and I loved what she was doing. She’s a really great songwriter, and every album she gets better and better. I was lucky to have her and Dan Parsons come to my house and do a concert there. I have an old church in the country and it was just like, wow.”

Hylands prides herself on introducing people to “the dark side” of country music. “That whole alternative country scene, that whole Americana thing which started around 1995/1996 in terms of music charts, has gone a bit crazy, and I’d like to think I’ve had a hand in this,” she says. “With country music, so many people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but they say they don’t love country music.” Hylands has nailed me as a listener; maybe it’s time I re-evaluate my stance.

When she’s not interviewing on air, Hylands writes reviews and stories for both Rhythms and Stack magazines. It turns out we’ve both reviewed Loretta Lynn’s 50th album.

“When she hooked up with Jack White, I love that she found new people to work with. Even hooking up with Margo Price – I love seeing her with these younger, strong female artists,” Hylands raves. “The last few albums, she brings up different versions of songs she released so many years ago. These are songs that have to be heard. She was a forerunner who spoke up on women’s rights and women’s issues, I mean she spoke about the pill and got banned on the radio. She’s an incredible woman. Her and Wanda Jackson.”

In fact, Jackson is one of Hylands’ favourite international interviews. “Wanda Jackson is in the league of Loretta Lynn, right? She was the queen of rockabilly. She dated Elvis Presley who convinced her to move from country toward rock ‘n’ roll,” says Hylands. “I’ve done two really long interviews with her. I love Wanda Jackson! She’s in her eighties now, and she calls out to her husband during the interviews, Wendell, sitting in the background.”

Jackson also interviewed another royal in the country world, Dolly Parton. “I spoke to her about her biography, and originally wanting to be a bluegrass singer,” she remembers. “I only had ten minutes, so I had to get her engaged. I talked to her about her music and her charity work, and she was just so gorgeous, so appreciative. I also spoke to Porter Wagoner once, and she wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ about him. Talking to someone so legendary, those kind of interviews are so fantastic.”

Legends are one thing, but Hylands also has a knack for recognizing the legends of the future, like the “extremely good looking” Charley Crockett. He started out as a busker in New Orleans; now he’s released at least half a dozen albums. Plus, “he can wear a cardigan like nobody’s business,” says Hylands. “I was meant to be his tour manager but he had open heart surgery months before the tour was meant to start.”

Hylands has over 25 years of brilliant stories and has made lifelong friends with many artists, including Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. “They open their mouths and play guitar, and you just go, ‘oh my god’.” She also goes way back with previous Audiofemme subject and fellow 3RRR alumni, Mary Mihelakos; they’ve known each other since they were teens. “She was hanging around, this incredibly enthusiastic young girl obsessed with music,” Hylands says, whole-heartedly agreeing with Mihelakos’ recent induction into the Melbourne Hall of Fame. “If you’re gonna give an award to someone, give that girl some acknowledgement.”

Hylands can’t have guests for the time being due to COVID-19. But on the horizon, Hylands is very excited about the new album from Southern Culture on the Skids, who are responsible for the Twang theme, and loves being introduced to new albums by the up-and-coming indie artists managed by her friends in the States. She says, “My excitement is discovering new music every week.”

We know how she feels – perhaps that’s what keeps us coming back to Twang.

International listeners can tune in to Twang live or listen back via the 3RRR website.

Alt-Country Artist Tracy McNeil Explores New Beginnings on You Be The Lightning

Photo Credit: Ian Laidlaw

At the beginning of 2020, country singer Tracy McNeil had decided to finally stop dividing her life, giving up her day job as an educator and packing up her belongings to dedicate her life to touring her music. That new chapter began with the February 2020 release of her fifth album You Be The Lightning via celebrated label Cooking Vinyl Australia; it features her Americana-style approach to country, influenced by both her Canadian roots and adopted hometown of Melbourne. While the universe had other plans, necessitating a temporary return to teaching, You Be The Lightning has been critically acclaimed, securing high rotation across mainstream stations ABC Radio & Double J, and community radio airplay across Australia.

Tracy and her five-piece band The GoodLife finished off 2020 by achieving an ARIA Award nomination for Best Blues and Roots Album, an Australian Music Prize nomination, and an award for Best Country Album at the Music Victoria Awards. From April to July this year, McNeil and her band will tour around Australia. It’s not the rollicking, barnstorming tour she may have envisioned when writing You Be The Lightning, but it’s live and loud and that’s redemptive in itself.

You Be The Lightning is a rejuvenation, a rebirth, sparked by a human place, wanting to feel alive and connected the world,” says McNeil. “It’s about really wanting to feel something. It’s not biographical, but it’s inspired by what I was seeing around me in terms of people sleepwalking through life and not recognising their full potential.”

McNeil studied dance in Canada after finishing high school and began doing open mic nights a few years later. This was the beginning of her solo music career; she assembled a band in 2006 for her first album, Room Where She Lives, and at the same time was offered a position in post-graduate studies in Australia. McNeil opted to research the music scene in Melbourne, which conveniently enabled her to network and befriend local musicians including Jordie Lane, Liz Stringer, Steve Hesketh from The Drones, Melbourne singer-songwriter Suzannah Espie, and The Idle Hoes, some of whom went on to appear on McNeil’s records. McNeil organised a few gigs around town, ultimately juggling both study and full-time employment with her fledgling Melbourne music career.

“I moved here in 2007 to do my teaching post-graduate diploma in education,” recalls McNeil. “I was going to go back to Canada ten months later as a performance and dance teacher. However, I ended up teaching in a high school here. In fact, I’m doing some teaching in Brisbane at the moment. It’s a double-life: music and a solid day job as a teacher! I did quit in 2020, which was because I intended on music  being full-time, so I was purely writing music and planning the tour and now I’m doing some short-term teaching work until the tour starts.”

In February last year, just prior to Melbourne’s first lockdown, McNeil lead Dan Parsons (guitar), Bree Hartley (drums), Brendan McMahon (keyboards) and Craig Kelly (bass) into a compelling live set at the Stag and Hunter Hotel in New South Wales’ Newtown. That night, she performed “Drunken Angel,” the track labelmate Lucinda Williams made into a classic on her 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. McNeil likes to do justice to each song, much as Williams has done her entire career. There is no strict genre that McNeil feels beholden to, apparent in the variety on You Be The Lightning. “There was a Neil Young Harvest-esque vibe on one track, whereas on another we layered up the drums and tracks in a very pop style,” McNeil says.

Recorded live to tape – a mix of analog and digital – at The Aviary Recording Studios over three weekends, You Be The Lightning took over a year to complete. This was due to McNeil’s teaching obligations, but it was also the meticulous layering of overdubs, vocals, guitar, and final touches co-produced with Parsons at the helm. It’s been a time of endings and awakenings for McNeil, whose marriage to a fellow musician (that she prefers not to discuss) ended during the making of the record but created the space in which Parsons and McNeil could fall in love with each other.

“The whole experience was tumultuous,” she admits. “It was a very personal time for me, the making of that record. I recall the tape machine broke during ‘Stars’ and we had to go back and start again. I’ve never had a more emotional rollercoaster ride making a record. It was a vulnerable record in terms of themes and working with Dan to produce it. The whole process of falling out of love and into love made it a crazy time to make this album.”

The songs are largely fictitious, a change in approach after the rawness of grief and healing captured on 2016 album Thieves, which was emotionally and energetically sculpted by the death of her father, Canadian singer-songwriter Wayne McNeil. You Be The Lightning was less of a catharsis and more of a record of her emotional landscape over the four years it took to write, rehearse and finally record the songs she’d labored over.

Parsons has proven the ideal collaborator and partner in every sense. “Dan and I have similar musical taste and we think very much on the same page when it comes to music,” McNeil explains. “Dan is far better than me on articulating how to execute ideas in a way that we can accomplish it in studio. Dan’s the musical director of the band, I would say. I trust him completely, and he trusts me completely.”

The irony, McNeil explains, is that when two artists pursue their dreams, it can have dire consequences for the relationship in the long run. “Being on the road together is romantic on so many levels, but it’s not my first rodeo with being with another artist… it’s hard,” she says. “You’re both chasing an end goal that, if everything goes to plan, would move you away from each other.”

The couple have been writing together, and often played shows as a duo prior to the pandemic, scouting audiences and venues for GoodLife gigs. The forthcoming Australian shows will be a welcome treat to fans who’ve waited to see You Be The Lightning live – not to mention a relief for McNeil, her partner, and her band. “We’re chasing the same target and our dreams merge,” she says. “We really look forward to focusing our energy in one direction for a little while.”

Follow Tracy McNeil & the GoodLife on Facebook for ongoing updates.